By continuing your visit to this site, you accept the use of cookies. These ensure the smooth running of our services. Learn more.

Dull grey matter

This morning was going to be a productive time as I worked through the comments on my essay and turned it into something so much better than it currently is.  But after an hour and a half failing to rewrite one paragraph, two cups of coffee and 50g of extremely dark chocolate I am no further forward.  The grey matter is clearly very dull today.  So I have opted for plan B which is to do some reflecting on the whole thing - which is one of the things I'm meant to do anyway.

The first observation is that the comments are really helpful, but it strikes me is that one of the threads is about style of writing, and how what I'm now being asked to do is what I spent four years being told off for doing!  If I'm honest, what I'm now being asked for is more the way I have traditionally written - tell them what you're going to tell 'em, tell 'em, and tell 'em what you've told 'em.  But for four years I was told 'remove all this connective stuff' or 'you don't need to to explain what you're going to do next.'  I find I am more bemused by all this than I would have anticipated.  Having adapted to one set of demands, it isn't so easy to change back even to what feels 'better.'

Related to - or maybe intrinsic to - this is 'know your audience' and this is tricky too.  Just who am I writing for this time?  Is it the group of Baptists who will be the ultimate recipients or is it the university for whom it is a requirement?  This creates a strange kind of tension in the writing, because the same piece of work has to serve two different functions and two different audiences.  What I can 'take as read' in one context I can't in the other.  Allied to all this is that this piece is meant to be part of greater whole, a portfolio of work that will ultimately demonstrate (or fail to) a level of competence as an academic researcher.  How much should it 'stand alone' within that and how much can it implicitly build on or draw from the work of last year?  In other words, how much can it 'take as read' in the context of the portfolio?  In the end, I think I am going to have explain stuff that in the context of the overall project ought to be able to be taken as read, simply because a unique piece of writing can't assume the reader has a clue where I'm coming from.  I find myself wondering quite what the university is measuring here - is it solely the quality of my argument or is there some recognition of targeting a piece at a specific audience who requirements may be other than those of the marker? 

There is something here, I think, about writing within a 'community' that relates to what I'm trying to research (and makes me think I should have opted for scientific research where I didn't have to ask this kind of questions in quite the same way).  I am wanting to challenge something about what seems to taken-for-grantedness in the audience and aims of writing denominational history, but I need some sort of taken-for-grantedness in which to be able to express my thoughts - no wonder my grey matter is so dull!

I think that somewhere in what I've written is a reasonably good essay trying to get out, but that lots of factors are conspiring to make that difficult to achieve.  There is more to it than trying to find a writing style and a target audience, and there is more to it than me being tired, not having much time or not the world's greatest wordsmith.  There is also a whole heap of accumulated/assimilated stuff that conspires to undermine.  There are the comments of some that 'practical theology' is not real theology, that if one could do 'proper' theology (by which I assume they mean dogmatics/systematics) one wouldn't bother with this stuff.  On top of this are comments that a professional doctorate is 'taught' and 'not really a doctorate at all', that it is easier than a real PhD and somehow lesser.  Different, it seems, is not an option.  I begin to gain a glimpse of how teenagers feel when my generation dismisses GCSEs and new style modular A levels.  When you work hard to do the best you can within a given system and with unique constraints, the last thing you need is someone else to demean the end product.  So when the words aren't flowing, you can feeling triply fikk.

I am really enjoying my work (even though the literature review last year was a bit of a drag!) and am learning lots of new things along the way.  I am enjoying working with a Anglican historian and a Baptist theologian, as each brings different insights and questions to my work.  I am enjoying finding out new information (the sort of 'banking' stuff that is sometimes disparaged by pedagogy people).  I am enjoying using my brain - even on the days it is very, very dull.

I am told most post grad students live in perpetual fear of being 'found out' for the frauds we believe ourselves to be.  When I hear 'real PhD' students talking about their work and reeling off complicated ideas I become the more aware of my own limitations.  When I talk to ordinary 'people in the pew' about what I'm doing and they seem to get it, I feel reassured that the important 'edge' of practical theology - that it relates to real people who don't have a whole string of letters before/after their name - is there in some measure.

Probably this amounts to several hundred words of self indulgent waffle that would better have been confined to a private folder.  But then I wonder, how many other people there are - competent, hard working, and some with amazing natural intelligence - who might actually benefit, as I do periodically, from hearing seemingly strong people admit to their struggles or insecurities?  One of the justified criticisms of Christians is our fake cheerfulness, of saying we are 'fine' when we are in fact Feeling Inadequate, Needing Encouragement.  My grey matter does feel rather dull today, and I still need to sort this essay into a better form before it can be submitted for marking. but I also know (i) that I remain convinced it is work worth doing (ii) that those who offer comments are 'on my side' and that (iii) if I'm honest, and with my past track record, I am capable of producing a decent essay!


  • If you're still feeling 'fine' can I encourage you by saying everything you've said seems to make sense.

    You're probably operating on one of Paul Tillich's 'boundaries', in this case the boundary between the academy, the ecumenical community, Baptist life and a local congregation - throw the rest of life in as well and you're bound to wobble on the tightrope occasionally.

    I'm just relieved to be operating on only four of those boundaries these days.

    I think what you're doing should come out right, based on previous form!

  • I live in fear of:

    - someone discovering that last months reading list consists of mainly short articles of only one side of A4.

    - that I have no idea what I am doing with the evening service, I just have a general idea of the direction and am navigating by the landmarks as we go along.

    - that my children and family will think that my research and work is more important than them.

    - that my congregation will think I'm too tied up in research and involvement in the wider church that I don't have time for them.

    - that the churches saving will run dry and we will have to move.

    Ooohh dear. I think that's enough ear for today. It's probably time to write the discussion primer on "where is God in an act of God".

The comments are closed.